We often talk about cost. But what about value?

Americans are increasingly questioning the value of postsecondary education. With skyrocketing student debt, declining rates of degree completion, difficulty assessing the quality of institutions, and changing demographics of the student population, the value proposition of a college degree has shifted. Simultaneously, more and more Americans will require higher education to succeed in a rapidly changing and increasingly automated economy. If we’re going to prepare our workforce for the economic challenges facing our nation, we have to rethink the way we deliver postsecondary education.

The U.S. currently has $1.48 trillion in total outstanding U.S. student loan debt divided amongst 44.2 million Americans; that includes 71% of all students graduating with four-year degrees. And it’s no surprise. The average price for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board for public institutions was $16,188 in 2014-2015 and $41,970 per year for private, non-profit institutions. Meanwhile less than 60% of all students that begin a four-year degree program complete their degree within six years, meaning that more than 40% of students incur significant debt without even attaining a career-advancing degree.

At the same time, our economy is evolving to become more dependent on automated technology, which will replace many low-skill jobs and require more employees to have advanced training enabling them to interface with advanced technology. This means the current state of postsecondary education is unsustainable. What’s more, the average college student is changing. Twenty-six percent of college undergraduates have dependent children. Nearly 40% work full time (30 hours or more per week). Many don’t have the luxury of attending a school away from home or going to classes scheduled exclusively during weekdays. Today’s student needs more flexibility and a different mix of student support services than are currently being provided at the vast majority of postsecondary institutions.

It’s time for innovation in higher education. Whether this means allowing free online courses to translate to college credit, rethinking the way certain professions are certified or skills attained, or whether we need to rethink the way we accredit colleges and universities – or something else altogether – our nation is past due for thinking about a higher education system that works for our changing economy, evolving student population, and the future of our nation.

The only conversation our policymakers seem to be having about higher ed is who should bear the burden of colleges costs – students themselves or the American taxpayer. Do we continue to tell students that they must rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to advance their careers or should we raise taxes to force the American people to pay for others’ educational choices? This is a false dichotomy that obscures the real problem – the status quo isn’t working. It’s time to start a new national conversation about the goals of postsecondary education and how we, as a nation, can achieve them.

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